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One of Malaysia’s top tourist draws, Penang haughtily dubs itself the Pearl of The Orient. With its eclectic cuisine and diverse population Penang seems more like a cultural prism - a microcosm of Malaysia that rewards exploration in the face of some off-putting attributes: the drab beaches are badly polluted and many of the streets are shabby and populated by vicious dogs.

Originally, Penang was an overgrown malarial swamp that nobody cared to inhabit. Enter multilingual maverick, Captain Francis Light of the invade-and-trade British colonial firm, the East India Company. The Sir Francis Drake of his day, Captain Light founded Penang in 1786, envisaging it as a harbour for China-bound ships in pursuit of tea and opium. First, Captain Light had to figure out what to do about the dense jungle carpeting the island.

According to one story, he ended up bombarding it with silver dollars unleashed from ship’s cannons, in the hope that Malays would clear space to retrieve them. In a further bid to foster settlement, the island was given duty-free status and new arrivals were allowed to claim as much land as they could clear.

Now, the 300-square-kilometre island has plenty to see, more than the country’s capital Kuala Lumpur, even. Much of the action happens at the island’s colonial capital, Georgetown. Named after the crazed English king who lost America, Georgetown boasts southeast Asia’s finest and fullest collection of 19th century and early 20th century buildings. Its grid makes it easy to navigate the streets that teem with the bazaars and bucket seat restaurants on which the city’s gourmet reputation rests. The diverse menu runs the spectrum from limejuice spiked with sour plum to duck-meat noodle soup. The temptation is to hang around downtown and eat and eat.

But beyond Georgetown’s hedonistic sphere, Penang has some engrossing natural attractions, not least the bird sanctuary. Flycatchers, kingfishers, fairy bluebirds, pheasants and flowerpeckers are just some of the birds on parade at the sanctuary, which is threaded with waterfalls.  The sanctuary’s sister, the butterfly park, houses over 4,000 tropical butterflies encompassing 150 species and is touted as a “live museum”. At time of writing, plans are underway to add a night zoo stocked with nocturnal creatures and tropical insects. Drawn like moths to the flame, most tourists visit at least one of the many sandalwood incense-drenched temples dotted around the island. Penang has more places of worship per square kilometre than anywhere in Malaysia.

Two of Penang’s most exceptional temples are to be found in the same workaday Georgetown street, Burmah Lane. On one side of the lane stands the Dhammikarama Burmese Temple that bristles with standing Buddhas, and on the other the Wat Chayamangkalaram of the Thais, which contains a reclining Buddha the length of a small ocean liner. Beneath him are niches stuffed with the ashes of dead devotees.

Agents of death infest Snake Temple, aka the Temple of the Azure Cloud, which is set near the airport. Apparently drugged by incense smoke and devenomised just in case, the “holy and harmless” green pit vipers laze and sustain the myth of a monk with a soft spot for lethal reptiles. The monk, named Chor Soo Kong, gave shelter to the snakes of the jungle. When the temple was completed, taking the monk’s behaviour as proof that they were family, the snakes moved in. As much a part of the furniture as the 270-kilogram Manchurian bell, they look unlikely to leave any time soon.

Snake temple and its Burmah Lane rivals may seem hard acts to follow but are matched or even eclipsed by Malaysia’s biggest temple, Kek Lok Si (Temple of Supreme Bliss). Perched on the summit of 800-metre-high Penang Hill, the tiered temple features a turtle pond, the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas and a profusion of iconography.

The highlight is a towering, sinuous statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy, who forsook Nirvana so that she could help lost souls in the world of suffering. At Fort Cornwallis, the star-shaped fort on the island’s northeastern coast, the rather rakish statue of Captain Light looks comparatively modest.

Don’t come to Penang looking for an idyllic beach retreat, as the island’s much-vaunted and over-touted beach, Batu Ferringhi, has now been comprehensively spoiled by over-development. Signs along the beach warn visitors not to bathe, due to the large number of jellyfish that have been attracted by the effluent in the waters. The signs are somewhat superfluous though, as one look will be enough to deter most visitors from a dip in the almost opaque, green water. It looks so acidic that the beach-comber may wonder if the occasional t-shirt washed up on the beach is all that is left of the last tourist unwise enough to try a dip. After a downpour the pollution is given a much-needed flush and the green goo changes colour – to brown, a product of the run-off from the island’s deforested hills.

What really sets Penang apart is the cuisine. Duck noodle soup in Bangkok? Done that. Money chicken (discs of unleavened bread, chicken and liver) in Hong Kong? Been there. Adventurous foodies who don’t want to dine on endangered species are now turning to Penang for their culinary thrills, where all the world’s main cuisines are thrown into a culinary melting pot, often to exquisite effect. It was surprising that, when readers of the NY Times recently voted for the 44 destinations they recommended for 2009, Penang was the only Asian destination included in the ‘foody’ listings: the surprise was not that Penang came first in the Asian gastronomic listings, but that other destinations such as Singapore and Hong Kong didn’t make it onto the list.


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